Around 2009, manager Jonny Shipes, formerly with Bad Boy, offered rapper Big K.R.I.T. (Justin Scott) a unique deal—partner with him for six months, free of attachment, and see what happened. “That was the first time somebody offered to work for me for free,” marvels the 25-year-old. Under Shipes’ tutelage, K.R.I.T., (King Remembered In Time), shot three videos, including one for “King.” Soon, the joint was dropping all over the ‘net, and drew the interest of Sha Money XL, who’d helped make 50 Cent a household name. Sha Money was impressed by the reams of performance footage and the many free, self-produced albums Scott had released through his website, particularly K.R.I.T. Wuz Here––proof that the artist could gain attention without outside help. Sha Money then convinced Scott to sign with Def Jam. Scott advises artists to remain independent for as long as possible and expose their early work, warts and all. “People want to know who they’re buying into,” he advises. “Normally, there’s no trail. But what about when you weren’t super jamming or you didn’t have the money to go into a studio?”
Here’s a solid career strategy that paid off: Prior to label interest, the Columbus, OH-based piano pop/rock duo Twenty One Pilots built a fan base playing dynamic shows that drummer Josh Dun says are inspired by “vulnerability and energy.” As their local buzz rose, the duo kept their sites close to home. “A lot of bands think they need to travel as much as possible. Our approach was to travel our home state, Ohio, and maybe a little outside of that.” They were also careful to be strategic about what and when they posted on Facebook. “We didn’t really promote the smaller shows. We would show up at a venue and the goal was to make friends out of those people rather than bring existing fans. Then when we had one big show, we put as much effort as possible into promoting it and had people coming from all locations.” It was at the Pilots’ biggest show, at a sold-out 1,700-capacity Newport Music Hall, at Columbus’ LC Pavilion, that they announced their signing with Fueled By Ramen.
A family friend can sometimes be the key to a label deal, and that is the case with this all-teen, all-girl rock squad. Cherri Bomb had a great connection in former Hole and Motley Crue drummer Samantha Maloney, as sisters Rena and Nia Lovelis’ mother had been in a band with Maloney years before. “Sam was in a band called Chelsea Girls, had heard us and asked if we wanted to open for her,” explains 14-year-old lead vocalist Julia Pierce. “She saw our potential and wanted to take us under her wing.” Maloney was instrumental in getting the girls on a number of prestigious European festivals, playing with acts like Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins, proving they could hold their own in front of major audiences. Explains Pierce, “Hollywood Records wanted us to be on their team, and they treat us like family.”
Though this Cleveland native had boldly stood up P. Diddy when the mogul had initially pursued him, the two did meet up later in N.Y.C., where Diddy took Kelly (Richard Baker) to a hotel to meet Jimmy Iovine. Both industry titans professed their belief in Kelly, the first-ever white rapper to win at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. “They didn’t want to [mess up my project] and paint it over with corporate bullshit,” he remembers, “plus the fact that he took me to Jimmy Iovine so early was crazy.” MGK snagged a $1.5 million advance on a two-album deal that includes an imprint for his crew.